“The Sandman: A Game Of You” by Neil Gaiman
“A Game of You” is a very interesting part of the Sandman series. In it, we’re introduced who a whole slew of fascinating characters we haven’t previously met, and the plot is particularly gory in places. It’s also an incredibly sad story, with an ending that’s both heart-breaking and uplifting.
Back in the second installment, “The Doll’s House,” Rose moved into an apartment building in Florida. One of her neighbors was a pretty blonde woman named Barbie, who adorably was married to a man named Ken. We were introduced to Barbie’s epic dream life as Princess Barbara (practically Narnia-ish, with it’s animal friends and journeys.) At the end of “The Doll’s House,” those dreams were shattered, and we haven’t heard from Barbie since.
As “A Game of You” opens, we’re back in “The Land,” where Princess Barbie once ruled. Prinado, Luz, Wilkinson and Martin Tenbones (the animal friends) discuss how the Princess abandoned them, and how Martin Tenbones has a necklace called The Porpentine that he will bring her back with.
In present-day New York City, Barbie has been divorced for two years. She doesn’t dream anymore. We meet her best friend Wanda (actually a man,) and her neighbors Hazel and Foxglove (a lesbian couple), Thessaly (a mousy girl), and George (the silent upstairs neighbor.)
In the Dream World, Morpheus and Matthew are waiting… for something. It turns out, one of the Skerries is dying. Skerries are “distant islets” of dream. Morpheus isn’t bothered, these things die all the time.
Back in New York, Barbie and Wanda have gone out shopping and encounter a bad lady on the subway who freaks out when she sees a dog. The bag lady flees the subway, so imagine her surprise when she comes around a corner to run into Martin Tenbones in massive dog form. Barbie and Wanda encounter the giant beast as well, and Barbie remembers him on sight. Just before he’s gunned down in the street, Martin Tenbones passes the Porpentine back to Barbie, who is devastated. (Back in “The Land,” Luz, Prinado, and Wilkinson know immediately that Martin Tenbones is dead.) Wanda gets Barbie home, where she breaks down at the realization that her former dreams may have been more than just a dream.
Upstairs, a dark bird flies to George. George eats the bird and says, “You don’t know us, Princess Barbara. But the children of the cuckoo know you. Oh yes, we know all about you.”
Barbie gets a visit from a distraught Hazel, who confesses she’s pregnant after having an affair with one of the waiters she works with. After giving some advice, Hazel leaves and Barbie turns on the TV to try and stay awake. She starts having mini-hallucinations, or so she thinks. For a second, Faerie Nuala appears warning her that “there’s something bad on the way.” But, like a normal person, Barbie finally loses the battle with sleep and drifts off. As her dream begins, she parts some curtains and comes face to face with Wilkinson.
All around the apartments, the neighbors are sleeping – but not George. Nope, he cuts his chest open and frees a pack of black birds. Each of the dreamers, in turn, is visited by a bird who turns their lovely dreams into nightmares. Wanda, Hazel, and Foxglove are terrified by their dreams. However, when the black bird reaches Thessaly, she grabs it and it erupts in flames. Calmly, Thessaly heads upstairs to George’s apartment armed with a knife.
Barbie, or rather Princess Barbara, is now reunited with her friends, who inform her she has to defeat the Black Guard and the Cuckoo. A small army, they take off on their journey.
Thessaly rounds up the terrified neighbors, and the still-sleeping Barbie (who now clutches the glowing Porpentine to her chest) and takes them all up to George’s apartment. George is dead in the bathtub. It quickly becomes apparent that Thessaly is more than just a mousy girl, as she proceeds to remove George’s skin and hangs his face on the wall where it immediately starts talking. After it tells Thessaly that The Cuckoo sent him, and that The Cuckoo is after Princess Barbara, Thessaly calls down the moon (with some handy witchcraft) and she, Foxglove, and Hazel walk off into another world. Wanda, technically still a man, is left behind to watch over Barbie – and to chat with George.
Princess Barbie and her friends are journeying over snowy mountains when they run across the frozen and gutted body of The Tantoblin, who was carrying a message for Princess Barbie. They bury the body, and then find themselves hiding from an army of dark and creepy figures before continuing on their way.
Back in DreamWorld, Nuala confesses to Morpheus that she appeared to Barbie with a warning.
Princess Barbara and her friends have found themselves out of the winter, and it’s now sunny and warm on their journeys. Princess Barbara, embracing her dream life, is over the moon happy. They keep moving, and then Prinado goes missing only to re-appear dead and hanging from a tree. Realizing they’ve arrived in Tweener woods, The Princess, Wilkinson, and Prinado take off running, but The Porpentine lights up, remembering the way. Finally, they reach the edge of the woods and are at the sea. Luz volunteers to take off for help.
George’s face is still talking to Wanda while Barbie sleeps. He remarks that Thessaly has done a dangerous thing by calling down the moon, as she’s now messed with the tides.
Luz returns to Princess Barbara and Wilkinson with an army of guards. Wilkinson is killed when he tries to defend the Princess, and she’s put into manacles and hauled to The Citadel. Imagine the Princess’ surprise when she realizes The Citadel is Barbie’s childhood house. Inside the house, Barbie meets an adorable childhood version of herself. This is The Cuckoo, born from Barbie’s childhood dreams of being a princess in a faraway land. Princess Barbara starts fading, feeling faint and sick. Out of it, she agrees to let The Cuckoo kill her.
New York is in the middle of a terrible storm – with hurricane force winds. Looking out the window, Wanda sees the bag lady from earlier lying in the street, hurt, and goes out into the storm. She brings the bag lady back upstairs.
Thessaly, Foxglove, and Hazel arrive in “The Land.” Thessaly isn’t really interested in chasing Barbie, but she’s hot to track down The Cuckoo. Encountering Wilkinson’s body, Thessaly is able to get some information from the corpse and the three women continue on their way. Foxglove is furious at Hazel, who’s pregnancy has been revealed. However, as they take hands, the reader realizes the couple will be alright.
Luz and The Cuckoo have dragged Princess Barbara’s – now practically comatose – to the Hierogram. The Cuckoo reveals that “The Land” is just one of hundreds or thousands of little dream-islands. The Cuckoo has been trapped in this land forever, and wants to be free. Thessaly, Hazel, and Foxglove arrive at the hierogram. The Cuckoo tricks Thessaly into thinking Luz is The Cuckoo, and immediately Thessaly kills Luz. As Princess Barbara stirrs, The Cuckoo explains that the destruction of the Hierogram or the Porpentine will signal the death of The Land, and the destruction of both will ensure it – and then she will be free. Barbie destroys the Hierogram with The Porpentine
Wanda is talking to the bag lady (Maisie Hill) back in the apartment. Maisie is surprisingly unflinching at the bloody face on the wall, or at talking to a man in women’s clothes. Turns out, Maisie’s grandson was the same way, and was killed tragically. The storm rages on outside, devastating New York.
The destruction of both the Hierogram and the Porpentine brings Morpheus to “The Land,” where he un-creates the land and summons all it’s residents to him, where they are taken into his robe and vanish. Last of them is a beautiful woman named Alianora. Morpheus picks up “The Land” and it is nothing more than a handful of sand, which he lets float away. He has encountered Thessaly before, and informs them all they’re in serious trouble – and they’re not alone.
In New York, the apartment building is blown to pieces by the storm.
Princess Barbara, by the terms of a compact she didn’t know existed, can ask any boon of Morpheus. Rather than destroy the Cuckoo, she asks for herself, Thessaly, Hazel, and Foxglove to return back to reality safely. The Cuckoo is free to fly away, and Thessaly isn’t happy. Morpheus takes off, leaving the women in the blank land until he can make the world safe and sound again. So they wait.
Suddenly, Barbie is back in reality and dressed in all black at a train station. She’s having pie with Wanda’s (or rather, Alvin, his male name) aunt. Wanda/Alvin died during the terrible storm, and Barbie has traveled for her friends funeral. Maisie Hill died, too, but it was her body that saved Barbie’s body from death on that same terrible night. Barbie attends the funeral and sees the close-mindedness that Wanda/Alvin was running away from by living in New York City. Wanda’s hair is cut, and she’s been buried in a suit. Post-funeral, Barbie takes a moment to sit by the grave and talk to her departed friend. She also crosses out “Alvin” written on the tombstone, and writes in “Wanda” in red lipstick.
On the bus ride home, Barbie dozes off and has a wonderful dream – Wanda, restored to full beauty and female form, stands happily. Suddenly, Death appears and whispers to her. Then the two women smile and wave and depart.
It’s a beautiful ending to a sad story. “A Game of You” is a stand-out of the Sandman series, as far as I’m concerned. I adored it.